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-by Ernie Diaz
Beijing and Shanghai’s rise in fortunes has been aptly mirrored in the pin-cushion’s-worth of internationally-designed buildings that have sprung up apace. Grand, these buildings, staggering even, but not beautiful, not truly beautiful. You’ll rarely see anyone outside Beijing’s CCTV building taking photographs, and then usually only for commercial purposes.
Everyone with a schoolboy’s grasp of architecture has heard it, but how many have listened? “Form follows function.” It doesn’t matter how grand, or how pretentiously cute your themes are, CCTV tower, bird’s nest. OK, the bird’s nest is safe; hard to mess up “form follows function” with a stadium. But it misses on the next principle of beauty, that beauty is pain.
That’s why now, as was and will always be, the tulou buildings of south China draw people the world over to ogle at and appreciate their true beauty. First was the pain, the pain of a people rooted to the land, having to flee that land from invaders, wave after wave, diaspora after diaspora, always south, to new lands where they were no more welcome. Such is the short story of the Hakka, the ‘guest families’ who built the tulous out of desperation, born of clans having no choice but to huddle up in one fortress, the form following the function of defense against persecution.
Built to last, and to serve, but not for beauty. Besides, if you’re trying to be beautiful, you’re better off straining to be natural. The circular,fengshui-friendly layout of the tulous was no pre-meditated attempt at glamour. The tulou formula had as its variables forced communalism within, crushing feudalism without.
But by no means think of the Hakka as a monolithic, mono-racial people. Are the Jews all one? The two groups share similar histories in terms of paradoxical clannishness/assimilation, oppression/wealth, dispossession/cultural richness, and in terms of not being a race. But the Jews have their faith to unify them. The Hakka – even their peculiar brand of Chinese, once the standard tongue, has splintered into variform dialects. Their story – no more, no less – keeps what is left of what it means to be Hakka.
Not that there aren’t folk still trying to fill out that story, and at last connect the Hakka to their various roots, and in what corresponding regions of China those roots lie, and what branches of early Chinese people they came from. Lee Lock even has an Eyebrow Theory, whereby thick and straight eyebrows denote Hakka originally from northern China, shorter and wispier from southern stock.
Much less interest, for whatever reason, is directed at the Hakka still living in the tulous. You’d think an enterprising Chinese television impresario would at least be shopping a reality show concept based on the premise of an extended community calling the same building home. Having your whole community knowing the frequency of your conjugal relations, your quarrels word-for-word, would only be the start. The tulou youngsters would provide stark contrast, with their non-stop efforts to live modern lives and escape the confines of their beautiful homes for city apartments.
Of course, those Hakka still living in tulous are a tiny fraction of the millions of Hakka who have long since left the tulous, for lives that were no less demanding abroad, but where their cohesiveness and diligence paid richly, after a few generations. More Hakka have English as their native tongue than their ancestors’, as well as Malay, Indonesian, even Hindi. Perhaps the Hakka majority themselves privately think of their still tulou-bound kin, “C’mon, what are you waiting for! The Punti no longer lie in ambush outside the walls!”
So that leaves the tulous themselves to stand the test of time, and buildings this old and over-occupied have claims to fame, even if the lives within play mum on the stories. Longyan, northwest of Xiamen, marks the watershed where the first Han bid the Jin Dynasty adieu and moved to the relative wilds of Fujian, the first Hakkas. Longyan’s Changting town is therefore their nominal capitol, the Tingjiang flowing beside their mother river.
Goatou Village’s Chengqilou is the non-sanctioned “king of tulous”, reigning since 1709. Four concentric rings graduate from four stories outside to the community hall-bungalow in the center, 144 rooms in all. These rooms housed over eighty families in its heyday, six hundred people. We can guess that those six hundred lived lives far more autonomous than their fellow Hakkas beyond, for the strict levels of seniority and generational authority as common to them as to traditional Chinese have always been much relaxed here.
Ironic that China’s most defensive architectural legacies are round, empty in the middle, symbolically female. It sounds like guff to a westernized mind, but said guff still throws weight behind many Chinese judgments. Thus is three-century-old Heguilou one of the most sought after tulou destinations. No circles here, just hard squares and edges. Ah, except for the yin yang drinking well at its soft center, whose waters are a progenitor’s best chance at having male children. Those of you needing ideal offspring for farm work best beware bottled water claiming to be Heguilou well-water, and drink from the source.